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Oct 30, 2010

Chelsea pull one out of the hat

The Premier League appears to be embarked upon a perpetual quest for another Roman Abramovich or a second Sheikh Mansour. For most, this particular Holy Grail is unattainable. Instead, there were Ewood Park debuts for Venky's managing director Balaji Rao and his brother Venkatesh, the men intent on making Blackburn a brand in India.

• Premier League Gallery

Aiming for 10th or 12th place was an indication of more realism than ambition. But as Blackburn, the Premier League's original big spenders, battled its pioneers among billionaires' playthings, resources became a secondary consideration.

It is hard to overestimate Abramovich's influence at Stamford Bridge but a win secured by a Chelsea side lacking their two summer signings weren't swept to victory by a tide of oil. Rather, at a typically wet Ewood Park, they dug it out. "That's why we're champions," sung the travelling fans in the Darwen End. It's as accurate a piece of analysis as most. A triumph for experience, knowhow and grit was also one of opportunism. The sort of games good teams win without playing well, it was a paradox.

Ninety minutes were decided by two. With Nicolas Anelka having equalised Benjani Mwaruwari's goal and a draw the probable outcome, Jason Roberts shot narrowly wide - "a golden chance," according to his manager, Sam Allardyce - before Branislav Ivanovic headed in Yuri Zhirkov's cross. That Chelsea's right-back finished with rather more confidence than Blackburn's striker may be an indication of the calibre of the players the two clubs can afford. It was also desperately cruel for Rovers.

"We were a little bit lucky," Carlo Anceltotti acknowledged. "They were better." It was a match where Chelsea's attacking ensemble of Anelka, Didier Drogba and Florent Malouda operated on the fringes, where Blackburn stopped the flow of superlatives towards Chelsea by preventing them playing with freedom. The harsh interpretation is that Rovers brought the champions down to their level. A fairer one is that Chelsea were cowed by an onslaught.

But while John Terry, who was out-jumped by Benjani for Rovers' goal, looked fallible, they can withstand it. As Sam Allardyce said: "They don't have to play better than the opposition to win games of football." Indeed, Chelsea didn't. They took two chances and, with Petr Cech in defiant mood, "they hung on in there," to quote Allardyce.

The contest between India and Russia was a financial mismatch. Rovers' mooted transfer budget of £5 million may be chicken feed by Premier League standards - and that is an end to the poultry puns - but Allardyce attempts to make a virtue out of frugality.

His front three consisted of a loan signing (Mame Biram Diouf), a discard recruited on a free transfer (Benjani) and an agent provocateur (El-Hadji Diouf). Collectively, they were terrific, allying physical force with drive and ensuring that a winger always arrived at the far post to meet crosses from the opposite flank. Twice that almost brought a goal for Mame Biram Diouf alone.

When Rovers did score, it was Benjani's first strike in the Premier League for 22 months, coming from El Hadji Diouf's cross and finished with his shoulder. A determined striker has previous for shouldering opponents aside: he scored with the same part of his anatomy in a Manchester derby.

The equaliser was rather classier. Malouda's cross-field ball was headed down by Drogba for Anelka to finish with languid ease. "Quality," said Allardyce. "That's how good they are." Indeed, the rare moments of excellence resulted in goals for the visitors. Zhirkov's ball for Ivanovic was, according to the Rovers boss, "outstanding."

His side's position isn't. "The performances are ok but the results just aren't good enough," Allardyce added. "It's a quarter of the season gone so we have got to start putting it right. It leaves us in a very dangerous position."

The chances are that their eventual station will be in that zone of mid-table safety that 10th to 12th represents. And should Chelsea continue to produce results like this for the rather more demanding Abramovich, both clubs' owners could end the season satisfied.

MAN OF THE MATCH: Yuri Zhirkov - He has been an expensive ornament on the bench for much of his time in England, but injuries to Frank Lampard and Ramires have given the Russian his opportunity and he came in for praise from Ancelotti. "When he scored a goal against Spartak Moscow in the Champions League, his confidence improved," the Italian said. "He put in the assist against Wolves. He is a very efficient player."

BLACKBURN VERDICT: They were very unfortunate not to take a point. Perhaps the half-time withdrawal of the hamstrung Benjani cost them, perhaps the loss of the injured Gael Givet did given that Ivanovic scored the decisive goal in the position Rovers' left-back would expect to occupy. But, though goalscoring remains an issue and it is possible no one will muster more than five league goals, they should still clamber out of trouble.

CHELSEA VERDICT: There may be two Chelseas, the free-flowing side who flourish at Stamford Bridge and the battle-hardened unit who try and grind results out on the road. Taking three points at Ewood Park and one at Villa Park (two grounds where they emerged with a total of one last season) suggests they are more solid on their travels. The return of the ever-excellent Michael Essien is an obvious reason, the fine form of Petr Cech another.

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